A grawlix is a commonly use element in the world of comics. The term grawlix refers to any instance where certain linguistic symbols or shapes are used to replace some form of swear words or obscenities uttered by one or more comic characters. The term was coined by comic creator Mort Walker in an article about the term in 1964 (citation needed). Some comics do not employ grawlixes and simply spell out every word or thought spoken, regardless of the level of social appropriateness of certain words.
Many comic creators still utilize grawlixes in order to increase readership of their work by making it more family friendly.
In this excerpt from Beetle Bailey, regular readers– who know Sarge’s character is anything but soft-spoken– recognize that he is “at it again.”The conversation between Beetle and the secretary provides a particular context as well; readers understand that Sarge is saying a swear word by reading Beetle’s comment, “Unfortunately, that’s the word,” when referring to Sarge’s personality.
This scene from issue one of the Hawkeye comic series contains a classic example of grawlix. The hospital worker is understandably upset when Hawkeye kicks the wheelchair into oncoming traffic. Instead of writing out whatever explicit language he uses to yell at Hawkeye, the creators chose to use a short sequence of symbols that are widely recognized by convention as swearword substitutes. Without this conventional recognition, grawlixes would make little to no sense at all.
Grawlixes and their connotative meanings are not only limited to symbols associated with language; many examples include pictographic symbols with broader meanings. The Lexicon of Comicana’s Wiki page mentions as part of its definition a description of a grawlix as “A series of violence related images,”(citation needed). Having a more flexible definition allows grawlixes to be employed in more diverse ways. In the panel below, an argument about the inherently corrupting nature of comics is made by depicting a young boy reading a comic book that is spouting forth a variety of unsavory subject matter. Amongst the small storm of chaos cane seen floating skulls and crossbones, stars,swirls, and various squiggles in addition to the more traditional grawlix symbols. The fact that these little shapes appear to emanate from a disembodied shouting mouth also make their purpose clear.
Comics and comic books often utilize grawlixes to convey implied meanings. When comic creators choose not to explicitly display violent or inappropriate language, they rely on the widely understood conventions of grawlixes to inform the reader of what is really being said.